Transformational change is the least understood and most complex type of change facing organizations today. What can a popular dance movement program from the 1970’s tell us about today’s change leadership styles and the level of effectiveness required in driving successful business transformation?

Performance artist and dancer, the late Gabrielle Roth, developed a movement program in the 1970’s that focused on five basic dance rhythms: staccato, flowing, lyrical, chaos, stillness and chaos. We’ll use these five rhythmic names as metaphors for our five change leadership styles.


Staccato is the warrior part of us that shows up as truth and clarity, it is the part that stands up for what we care the most about and it’s the teacher of boundaries. Visually, the rhythm of staccato is very well defined, clear, connected and not fearful of transparent expression. The staccato change leadership style is by far the most common in today’s business world. Think command and control. Most of today’s leaders were mentored themselves by staccato managers, and the culture of most organizations is still based on command and control norms.

The Staccato change leadership style is effective in crisis situations where people need direction, and decisive, quick action is required. The U.S. military is perhaps the greatest example of staccato style leadership and culture.  David Kilcullen, the author of ‘The Accidental Guerrilla, Fighting Small Wars In The Midst Of A Big One,’ states that in the first few years of the post 9/11 era, the established traditional command and control models for fighting wars proved distressingly ineffective against the resilient insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. It became clear that a paradigm shift was necessary that called for local decision-making, self-organization, course correcting, and equipping troops to solve these complex challenges to create order out of chaos.


Flowing is the impulse to follow the flow of one’s own energy. Those who embody the rhythm of flowing trust their feet to lead them where they are meant to go. This is one the most aesthetically pleasing and fascinating ways of dancing- to be in, to be around, and to watch. Each movement is connected to the next in a clear and obvious way. Metaphorically, flowing is about knowing your core self and moving from that place, grounded in your values. It’s knowing yourself in connection to others.

O.W. Gurley exemplified the flowing style. Immediately following Emancipation, there were 4,047 millionaires in the United States- and six of them were African American. Gurley, was part of this distinguished group. He developed a piece of Tulsa, Oklahoma, into a “town” for wealthy Black professionals and craftsmen that would become known as “Black Wall Street,” which included housing, schools, hotels, and a retail district. He also founded social institutions, an employment agency, and contributed to efforts to push back against voter suppression.

Inside the corporate infrastructure the flowing style of change leadership is adept at absorbing resistance, recognizing that resistance is a natural and normal part of the process, by staying centered, on-track, and redirecting the energy into the most productive channels, just as Gurley did helping to build ‘Black Wall Street.”


Lyrical teaches us how to break out of destructive patterns and surrender to the more fluid, creative and soulful repetitions. Lyrical is more of a state of being than a rhythm. This style is deceptive and looks easier than it is. A lyrical image is that of a duck floating on top of the water, with its feet moving at hyper speed beneath its smoothly floating body. Similarly, the lyrical change leadership style looks easy on the surface but there is a great deal of effort being exerted underneath.

Wael Ghonim is the embodiment of the lyrical change leadership style. In 2010, he was a little-known, thirty-year-old Google executive when he launched a Facebook page to protest the death of an Egyptian man at the hands of security forces. The page’s following expanded quickly and included a call to more than a million Egyptians online, and moved from online protests to a non-confrontational movement. On January 25, 2011, Cairo’s Tahrir Square resounded with calls for change and as the protest grew more intense- a few days later the president of Egypt was gone.

As demonstrated by Ghonim’s change leadership, the lyrical style tends to exercise influence behind the scenes but doesn’t have the overt power or authority to get things done. This style is also effective in situations where you need to move swiftly and leverage relationship networks to quickly take advantage of opportunities, while doing so through a shared vision, purpose and agenda.

In Part 2 we look at the remaining two metaphors of change leadership styles, Stillness and Chaos, and present key lessons for change leaders.

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One Comment

  1. jeremy thomas August 21, 2020 at 4:54 pm

    Great article! The illustration using dance as a metaphor is on point.

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